ABOVE: “Shemagh, beard and bling,” 2010. Through portraiture, Mahtab Hussain’s series “You Get Me?”
explores the cultural forces that shape identity for British Muslim men. TOP ROW FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: “Green chalk
stripe suit,” 2017; “Eyebrow tracks, white vest and baseball cap,” 2012; “Teenager, swing and last day
at school,” 2010.
Mahtab Hussain’s project “You Get Me?”
is a portrait series depicting young, Muslim,
British men. A Briton of Pakistani heritage,
Hussain knows community well. His generation
of young men has come of age in a post-9/11
world in which thorny ideas of identity come
with far more barbs. For Hussain, these young
men represent a “voice of hybridity” that
ultimately is the future of the world but they
are at present besieged by reactionary forces.
Hussain’s portraits, which were exhibited this
spring at Autograph ABP gallery in London
and published by MACK, show how this
population chooses to define itself amid this
uncertainty and hostility.
Hussain’s childhood gave him a sense
of this identity crisis when his parents’
divorce left the family ostracized within
Birmingham’s tight-knit South Asian Muslim
community. His father moved to a white
working-class neighborhood and his mother
to one that was primarily black and Indian.
When he was 7 years old, Hussain and his
brother moved in with their father and the
boys were suddenly confronted with racism
in a way they had never experienced.
“I was aware of racism before but that
was the first time it was really ever directed
at me,” he remembers. “Words like ‘Paki go
home’ and violence and threats were a normal
part of my life for ten years.”
That sense of being an outsider, of his
skin color as a barrier to Britishness, would
stick with him. Hussain is quick to point out
that it was not all bad. He did make friends
across various cultural divides and was a
generally happy kid with an aptitude for
the arts. That talent led him to Goldsmiths,
University of London, where he pursued an
art history degree. In a sense, “You Get Me?”
Mahtab hussain’s portraits reveal how young, Muslim, british men
represent themselves in defiance of racism and xenophobia.
BY DZANA TSOMONDO